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Spotlight: An Interview with International Dancer and Choreographer Nicola Ayoub

Nicola Ayoubby Melissa D. Johnston

I first met Nicola Ayoub as the spunky pilates instructor who kicked my butt in class each week. I learned quickly, however, that her passion, talent, and determination weren’t confined to being a teacher at a pilates studio in Atlanta, GA. Nicola was a gifted dancer who had trained and performed with the Atlanta Ballet. In addition, she worked regularly with Full Radius, a modern dance company. Now she was moving to France. Where she would dance. Period. (Even if all the hows weren’t worked out—yet.)

And dance she has. In the seven years that she has lived in Paris, Nicola has become an award-winning, international dancer/choreographer. She choreographed a bilingual one-woman show dealing with self and cultural identity, “The Language,” which was awarded Paris Jeunes Talents in 2008 and first place at the Parisian choreography contest Tobina in 2009. She’s toured Milan, Berlin, New York City, and Seville as well as performed regularly in Paris. She represented the USA in UNESCO’s 2011 production “Astro-Ballet” and traveled to Banjul, The Gambia on a Fulbright grant to work with the country’s first theatre troupe. If that weren’t enough, she also began a dance company, 3 D Company, with partner Guillaume Morgan.

Nicola’s work is fascinating, creative, intelligent and powerful. Her positive attitude towards life and the pursuit of her dream continues to inspire me. I am honored to have gotten a chance to speak with her recently.

When did you first realize that dance was your passion? How did you decide to follow it and what keeps you energized in its pursuit?

I always wanted to perform. My first memories are of making up little song and dance numbers pretty much anywhere and for anyone who would watch.  I was 12 years old when I realized that dance was my passion and that was the thing I wanted to do with my life- be on stage and shine for the audience. Thus, at 12 I decided for myself that I would audition for the Atlanta Ballet’s pre-professional program. I called and planned my own audition, did it, got accepted, and then told my parents that dance would be my life. It is still the performing on stage that keeps me motivated to dance. Also, the chance to learn from other choreographers- their movement languages and ideas. I am always learning and hungry to learn more in this creative job.

"What I thought I knew" (duo with Asha Thomas)

“What I thought I knew” (duo with Asha Thomas)

In many of the dances you’ve choreographed and performed, you deal explicitly and implicitly with identities that are hybrid, “in-between,” straddling the borders of culture, language, and nations. “The Language,” a bilingual performance in which you use words, music, and dance to share the joys and confusions of an American living in Paris, was first inspired by your Lebanese heritage. In “What I Thought I Knew,” a duo with Asha Thomas, you both draw from your personal narratives to explore the internal realizations and revelations formed in living away from one’s home. Has the creation of dances and their performance brought a new understanding of self- or cultural- identity for you? Has it changed the way you think of the concept of “identity” itself?

Yes and yes. Self and cultural identity inspires all my work. Living far from home made me reconsider my values, my past, and who I am now. The story for “The Language” was my autobiographical experience as a foreigner in Paris and a lot of the clichés that go along with being the overly smiley American here. In France, I felt and still feel very American, but when I go back home I feel a little out of place, like something is missing. I’ve lived in France long enough that it will always be part of me too, an added layer to my identity. It is true that the original idea for “The Language” stemmed from my own identity questions about being both Lebanese and American. Until my first trip to Lebanon I was always proud to say how Lebanese I was. Then finally visiting my paternal country I realized just how very American I was/am. I think more than blood, where you grow up, what language you speak, your education, your travels, and experiences shape the person you become, in short, your identity. Through the creation of dances I’m finding how identity is also something malleable, time and experience change parts of you.

Nicola Ayoub

In “The Language,” you say, “My language is a system of symbols so that I can communicate to you my yearning, my yearning to understand and be understood.  Words alone cannot convey to you how I feel.  The body tells much more.  Les mots parfois sont inutiles. And words about the body are never as illustrative as body language by itself!” How do you think words and body language function differently in their symbolization? Do they tap into different symbol systems? I realize this question may best be answered by seeing you dance and perhaps also by we, the readers, becoming more aware of our own bodies, but perhaps words can catch a faint glimpse of the difference.

Body language tells the truth; it has weight and substance. Words can be strong too, but they mean nothing if the body language with it is false. For example, I could say “I am so happy you are here. I welcome you to my home.” Sounds nice, but imagine me saying that with my arms firmly crossed, shoulders up and tense, jaw locked, and legs squeezing together and you would definitely know that my words probably meant the opposite.

Dance is a universal language. In my opinion, open arms, a twirl, a hip sway- all that is much more inviting than the word “welcome.” For Atlanta readers, the perfect example of such a warm welcome is my Uncle Nick in his restaurant Nicola’s.  You see generosity come to life through movement and music.  Incidentally, my uncle is also my biggest dancing hero.

I totally agree about your Uncle Nick! I’ve had the honor of experiencing that generosity–and of taking part in the wonderful dancing there as well.

You’ve performed in “Astro Ballet” with a multi-national cast at UNESCO in an effort to promote the peaceful use of space through dance. You’ve also spent two weeks in Banjul, The Gambia, working at the Ebunjan Theatre with their troupe to help create and perform “Mystical Strings” and give the first modern dance show in that country. Could you say a bit more about these experiences? Do you think dance can really have a role in helping people from radically different backgrounds and experiences understand and relate to each other?

Yes! As I said before dance is the universal language. In the “Astro Ballet” the other dancers were Russian and spoke very little English, however, they all used classical ballet vocabulary (which is French and used by all ballet students worldwide) so I knew exactly what they were talking about with phrases like “arabesque, glissade, grand jeté.” Technically, the piece was very ballet based and we all shared the same vocabulary for these moves so I had no problem learning the steps called out or working with the other dancers. For the project in Banjul, the students had no formal dance training, no terminology so Asha and I had to be clear with our own movements and ask them to copy us. They learned some in this manner, but the first two days we thought they would never catch on to certain basic modern dance steps. Then we asked them to improvise to live drum music and WOW we saw some amazing natural dancers. Once we saw what their strengths were we could incorporate these moves into the choreography too so that they felt comfortable and then add new steps on top of it without frightening them.

I think music plays a huge role in this process as a guide, support, and inspiration to the dancers.

Banjul students after "Mystical Strings"

Banjul students after “Mystical Strings”

What are your current projects? What are some of the projects you’d like to pursue in the future?

This spring I am performing with the company Karma Dance Project (works by choreographers Alexandra Bansch and Gigi Caciuleanu) in France and Italy. Also collaborating with Greek choreographer Taxiarchis Vasilakos for his new creation “All is One.”

Specifically for next season, I want to expand the duo Asha Thomas and I started last year “What I thought I knew” and get it programmed in a Parisian theatre. Generally, I would like more choreography outreach projects abroad like I did in The Gambia. I’m hoping my dancing future will give me the chance to travel even more, meet new people, learn new dance styles, and share my own experiences.

You’ve been very successful in living your dream. If you had one thing to say to artists struggling to follow their dreams, what would you say?

It takes so much longer  “to make it” than you think and that is hard (the repeated rejection, the waiting, the lack of money I know it all well). But if you really want to be an artist, if you are starving to perform then persevere. Yes, perseverance will be your best friend.

***A wonderful update: In July 2013 Nicola and her partner Asha Thomas will be participating in another dance outreach program in Contonou, Benin, sponsored by African Regional Service (US Embassy).***

“The Language/femme fatale solo”:

UNESCO interview for Astro Ballet:

Spotlight: An Interview with Nerdkween

Monica Arrington

by Melissa D. Johnston

I remember the first time I saw Atlanta-based Monica Arrington, who performs under the name nerdkween, play. Two of the friends accompanying me, both musicians who had seen her before, were already giddy and starstruck. They had good right to be. Monica is a rarity. She is a classically-trained singer/songwriter/composer who freely experiments in both songwriting and performance, blending multiple styles effortlessly and elegantly into a spare and stunning lo-fi sound. Nerdkween released her debut full-length recording, Synergy, in 2008 with Stickfigure Records, which puts out recordings of acts such as Snowden, Deerhunter and Xiu Xiu.  She released a second CD called Profitandloss in November 2010 with Fieldhouse Recordings , a branch of Stickfigure. I got an opportunity recently to ask her a few questions about music and life as an artist.

Even before I heard your music, I was already in love with the name nerdkween. Is there a story behind the name? 

It goes back to high school for me. In school I associated with the smart kids and I guess secretly to myself, I imagined myself the “queen”.  As I started in college, I wanted to start my own label and I was going to call it  Nerd Queen Records.  The lettering has evolved over the years  into the official  (nerdkween)* .

Your music pulls from multiple influences and musical styles. Among your influences you’ve mentioned P.J. Harvey, Sonic Youth, Lisa Germano, The Sundays, Mazzy Star, Low, Cranes, and the early Liz Phair among others. Which were your earliest influences? In general, which do you think have proven or will be proven to be the most enduring in their effect on your writing and performing?

I love noise.  I think I will always find inspiration in it. I love vibrations and it recharges me.  I feel as though the music is born out of that haziness as in from chaos comes order and understanding. I also find the light airy and smothering  voices of Hope Sandoval and Lisa Germano to be  feminine yet strong all at once. My voice is similar and I also find the lyrics from them resonate with me. They celebrate their pensive and uncertain natures which I can also relate to.  It inspires me to dig deeper and not to be so afraid to express myself.

You’ve called your music postmodern pop. One of the interesting characteristics of postmodern music to me is that it can challenge barriers between “low” and “high” styles of music as well as “elitist” and “populist” values. You are a classically trained vocalist with a degree in musical composition. Do you see yourself as purposely playing with the cultural boundaries of pop and classical training either in attitude and/or in the actual creation of music?

Oh yes, my interests in music crosses over to many genres and it continues to grow. I think any creator or performer does themselves a disservice by not exploring  all there is in the world.  And with technology our world is becoming smaller and we can reach out to anyone anywhere. The cultural exchange is amazing for personal growth for anyone.  Yet, people would be surprised how much and often pop music “borrows” from  classical music.

What musical project or projects are you working on now? What most excites you about it? How does it relate to the work you’ve done in the past, particularly that in your last album Profitandloss?

Right now I’m in writing mode, I want to see what I can create just for the sake of writing. I would like to release another recording but I want to make certain I have good material and the best resources  to release under. I am listening to more world music and roots music and I want to find ways to incorporate it into my sound.  Simply songwriting can be very exciting if you are struck with inspiration.  So I’m kind of just enjoying the process without a clear agenda  or goal.  The last album I recorded and released something  within the year and it was a  great growth lesson for me.  At the time I needed to do it. Now, I want to take a bit more time and better myself.

You’ve been very candid about your struggle to live the dream of being an artist. Recently you’ve been putting your gifts and training to “practical” use by teaching music and voice lessons. About that you’ve said, “I have been fearful that finding a practical outlet for my craft equals failure of childhood fantasies” but also “Now, as an adult, I am working on helping my dream to also grow up.” Could you say a bit more about this journey? 

I think I actually surprised myself once I started teaching and coaching.  I am reminded that we as artist ARE teachers  even if we don’t have students. I love  being involved with music so that is what I have come to understand , not just the pursue of  being a so called recognized artist.

The craft of singing is something very dear to me so I don’t mind sharing what I know and experienced over the years.  In fact, I’m very excited when a have a student who displays a yearning to learn as much as possible about music and singing.

Recently you wrote, “I think it’s the ultimate role of an artist: to guide oneself and others through the process of living, to make connections with our ideals and the real world, and to find beauty and peace in conflict.” Do you have some hard-won advice to give to other artists aspiring (but also struggling) to live this role? 

It’s important to listen to your heart., and realize there are many avenues to take your dreams.  Life can get into the way but you can use it to challenge yourself and learn more about who you really are.  Just know that there are other people going through similar struggles in life, your art can help them cope.  Don’t stop creating, you never know who is paying attention. You never know you will need your art.

Thank you, Monica! 

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